Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Vampirates: Vampires & Pirates=A Winning Combination

The series begins in the year 2505. Most of the world has been flooded, and a new era of pirates are rising.
Grace and Connor Tempest (love the symbolism there) are fourteen-year-old twins, being raised by their simple lighthouse keeper father. When their father suddenly dies, the twins are forced to take their boat and flee, but are soon separated by a vicious storm. Connor is quickly rescued by a ship of Pirates, while Grace lands on a far more mysterious ship. The ship's crew is made up of highly evolved vampire pirates (Vampirates) who take blood weekly from willing donors instead of hunting as most vampires do.  Will they find a way to build new lives for themselves aboard their respective ships, or like so many before them, will they meet a brutal and watery fate....

I have to admit- when I first saw the concept for this series back in 2005, I was fully prepared to hate it. Not being a particular fan of "Vampire Fiction", I was fully expecting it to be poorly-written fluff that might take off, but would be overall pretty stupid. Boy was I wrong! Not only did I devour the first book, I was actually angry when I reached the last page because I want it to end. Thank goodness author Justin Somper wasn't done either, or he might have found himself locked in a cabin a la Paul Sheldon from Misery.

What makes this series so appealing (other than the ample sword-fighting and action scenes) is the strong character development. Nothing about these characters is black and white, and throughout the series, Grace and Connor (as well as the reader) have their perceptions and their ideals challenged. It is always a challenge in a series to let the characters grow and change, and Somper handles this quite masterfully. Loyalty, friendship and love all come into play as the series progresses, and part of the twins' journey is trying to make sense of the complications they bring.

There is a definite arc to this series, and it is meant to be read in order. The books build on one another, and each book ends on a cliffhanger that will have you anxiously awaiting the next. The plot also takes a number of twists and turns, and just when you think you've got it all figured out, something else happens to keep you off balance.

Whether you like Vampires, Pirates or both, this mystery, horror and adventure series will get you hooked.

Due to some violent content, this series is recommended for readers 11yrs+.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Relic Master: The Dark City- First in a hot summer series

The story is set in the world of Anaria- a world crumbling, and plagued by devastation. All that remains of technology are the mysterious, and illegal ancient relics, which emit great powers. The only hope for this world is Galen- a member of the old Order, and a Keeper of Relics, as well as his 16-year-old apprentice, Raffi.  They embark on a perilous quest to retrieve a secret and powerful relic that has been hidden for centuries, but they are not alone. There are others who seek this relic, and they will stop at nothing to get it.

First of all, I have to say I loved the design. I don't know what the original UK editions looked like, but these are amazing. The covers are visually stunning, and each book contains one piece of a map of Anaria on the reverse of the jacket. Each chapter begins with a quote either from the Watch who rule this world, or The Book of Moons, (which contains Anaria's history) and reveal a great deal about the world as it was and the world as it is. While Anaria is somewhat of a dystopia, I wouldn't go so far as to label this dystopian. Instead, I'd call it a quest fantasy, more along the lines of Lord of the Rings.

The pacing of the story is excellent, and it will immediately grab readers. The plot is not nearly as sophisticated as Incarceron, but the world building is solid, and the relationships between the characters are complex. At the start of the book, Galen is magically impotent. Injured in an accident that caused him to lose his powers, he relies on Raffi to keep others from finding out. Raffi has some ability, but is naive and trusting, and isn't really a leader. Then there is Carys, who is probably the most interesting and complicated character of all. A member of The Watch, her private journal entries reveal herself as a spy, but the more time she spends with Galen and Raffi, the less certain readers will be of her purpose.

Having read and loved Incarceron and Sapphique, I was hoping this would be equally as brilliant, which it isn't, but it's good, and worth the read.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Noah Barleywater Runs Away- A New Children's Classic has been born

I remember when Boy in the Striped Pajamas was released. It promised to be something different than most books we've read before. It was a beautiful allegory, and I instantly fell in love with the book. When I saw that John Boyne had a new book out, I couldn't wait to read it, and he does not disappoint!

Noah Barleywater is an eight-year-old boy whom we meet preparing to run away from home in search of an adventure. This of course is only one of his motivations. There is something troubling him at home that he doesn't want to face, and he has decided that the best thing to do is to run away. On his journey he meets a talking Daschund and a rather hungry donkey, who guide him to an odd looking cottage that is also a toy shop. This toy shop isn't just a toy shop. It's a magical place full of wooden toys and puppets, and the whole store is alive. The toymaker, (whom readers will later recognize as a beloved fairy tale character) shares the stories of his wonderous adventures, changing Noah's life forever.

Subtitled a "fairy tale", that's exactly what this book is, and it begs to be read aloud. The language is whimsical and clever, and the best way to describe this story is magical. From the very beginning I was hooked, and I just can't express how special it really is. There are important lessons to be learned here. Lessons about being honest with children, keeping promises, and facing the things we're most afraid of.

Once in a while, and ever so rarely a book comes along that truly has the makings of a classic, and this is one of those gems. Like Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, this is an unforgettable story that will charm children for generations.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Reading Promise- A Must Read Memoir for Book Lovers!

When Alice Ozma was 9 years old, her father made a promise to read to her every night without fail for one hundred nights. One hundred nights passed, and not wanting it to end, they agreed to make it 1000, and then to keep it going for as long as they possibly could. The reading "streak" as they called it lasted 3,218 nights, ending on her first day of college. Alice was so profoundly changed by this experience, that she made a commitment to spread the word about reading, and the importance of a reading promise.

Sometimes when I'm surfing the web and looking at blogs, I come across a review or an article that piques my interest. A few days ago, I stumbled upon an article featuring this wonderful book, and it's the kind of story that will especially resonate with anybody who loves books, and with anybody who ever enjoyed being read to. I was reading on my own at a very early age, but I still looked forward to the nights when my father would sit down on my bed with me and read me a bedtime story.  I don't really remember how old I was when this ritual stopped, but after reading this book, I was suddenly nostalgic for those times.        

This memoir is such a beautiful and uplifting tribute to the joy and value of books and reading in a time when the news is so riddled with stories of cuts to school library budgets. It is also the story of a wonderful bonding experience between a father and a daughter, and how reading together made them closer.

Alice is a terrific storyteller, and her warmth and passion for her subject is infectious. She talks about her father with tremendous affection, and it's clear that in her eyes, there could be no bigger hero. Being an elementary school librarian was not a job- it was a calling, and he sees nothing more valuable than sharing books with children.

In this series of humorous and touching vignettes, Alice celebrates both the extraordinary man who instilled in her a lifelong love of books, and the books that have contributed to making her who she is. Whether you write for children, work in a library or have ever had a special relationship with a parent this is the kind of book that will remind you of everything that you love about books, and make you want to grab your children and read to them right away. (Grown up or not!)

If you would like to know more about starting a reading streak and making a reading promise, visit the author's website- http://www.makeareadingpromise.com/.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

When Everything old is new again- the return of Macdonald Hall

I remember the first time I was introduced to Gordon Korman. I was 11 years old, and attending German Mills Public School, and Gordon Korman came to my school. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that he was a student at my school, and close to my age when he wrote This Can't Be Happening At Macdonald Hall for an english assignment. From that moment on, I became a huge fan of his books, and especially of Bruno and Boots.

Bruno and Boots are best friends and roommates at a boarding school outside of Toronto called Macdonald Hall. They are mischevious pranksters, who enjoy playing jokes on the school, the teachers and their friends. Their partners in crime are Diane and Cathy, two young ladies who attend Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Girls, located across the road. The boys are watched by their strict headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka "The Fish") and the books follow their adventures (capers) at school and with their friends.

This new edition of Gordon Korman's now famous book arrives 33 years after its original publication, and it has stayed in print in one form or another consistently over this time. Best of all, these loveable trouble-makers never get old. We admire their antics, root for them to pull it off, and cheer when they do. Throw in some of today's technology and just imagine what kind of trouble they'll be able to find! 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Children's Choice Book Awards- When kids have the final say.

Today was the final day of the official closing ceremonies for the Ontario Forest of Reading Program at Harbourfront, and as always, it was a day full-of excitement, and surprises. When the nominees are first announced in each category, we supposed "experts" make our predictions as to which books will win, and most of the time, we're completely wrong!

This year, I was off on most counts, and I'm delighted! Children's choice awards are the truest reflection of a book's success with its intended audience. In my years of bookselling, I've learned that adults very seldom read a children's books with an eye purely towards enjoyment. They are looking for a teachable moment, a moral lesson, literary quality, etc...

Children on the other hand are primarily interested in one thing- did they enjoy it. A highly recognizable name or a visually appealing cover, or the genre might draw the kids to pick it up, but in the end, the kids know what excites them, and the votes reflect their choices, not ours.

So congratulations to all of the Forest winners, and to all of the winners and nominees, thank you for writing books that get kids excited about books.

For a full list of winners, visit the OLA website at http://www.accessola.com/

Meeting Meg Cabot

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting bestselling teen author Meg Cabot at a lunch hosted by Scholastic Canada, celebrating her new book Abandon. Firstly, I have to say, she is wonderful. She is outgoing, bubbly, funny and really charming. She really took the time to speak to each of us individually, which I appreciated, but her talk was a lot of fun too. A true writer, she asked me if I write, and encouraged me to pursue getting it published. She told me that she looks at writing like planning a trip- you should know your destination, but you don't necessarily have to plan every stop along the way. Very sage advice- now if only I can figure out what my destination is, maybe I'll eventually get something finished.

Now on to her book! I had already finished the book by the time I arrived at lunch, but hearing her speak about it was really enriching. I love having these little personalized tidbits about the author to reference when I booktalk. It's just something extra that really connects people to the author, and increases interest in the book.

The story of Abandon loosely ties in with the myth of Hades and Persephone, but is re-imagined for a teenage audience. When the story begins, Pierce and her mother have moved back to her mother's home town on an island in Florida, hoping to make a fresh start. Pierce has recently come back to life after an accident, escaping from the underworld by throwing a cup of tea in her "captor's" face. With her, she brought back a rare and beautiful necklace, that seems to cause harm to anyone who comes in contact with it. She also has one other little problem. John Hayden, the dark, brooding young ruler of the underworld wants her back, and will go to great lengths to get her.

I really enjoyed this. I love Greek Mythology, and I love stories that are centred around a myth. If you know anything about the author, you'll recognize a lot of her in Pierce. Pierce is a bit of an outsider. She doesn't really know where she belongs, she's been labeled by her school, and since nobody believes her anyway about what she experienced while she was dead, she carries that around with her too. Not a lot of things have gone right for her since she came back, and she's a pretty sympathetic character. She's smart, but not academically gifted, and she's extremely caring.

Hayden's character isn't quite as well developed, but he does pair up nicely with Pierce. He's brooding, but who wouldn't be if you were an 18-year-old underlord? He's got some heavy burdens himself, and Pierce attracts him and infuriates him. The characters do have chemistry, and the author really does a good job of creating romantic tension and teasing readers.

Interestingly, when she talked about the title, it came from a completely different place than where I thought. If you read it, I'd be interested to see what your take is on how the title relates to the book. And good news for fans- This is the first book in a planned trilogy, so there is definitely more to be said about these characters.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Divergent: Not Just Another Dystopia

Ever since The Hunger Games Trilogy popularized the dystopian genre, there have been a slew of YA dystopians published, each promising to be the next big thing. The trouble is, it's like crying wolf. You hear it often enough about enough books, and eventually it ceases to mean anything. When I was urged to read Divergent, I was skeptical. There is no shortage of dystopian thrillers out there, and despite the "buzz" surrounding this one, I was expecting it to be just another one of those dystopian books. I was wrong. Veronica Roth has managed to take a heavily satruated genre, and still create an original, edge-of-your-seat thriller that will immediately hook readers.

The story is set in a future Chicago, which is one of the few cities remaining after another world war. After the war, the survivors divided into five factions, each associated with a particular virtue- Candor, Amity, Dauntless, Erudite and Abnegation. The mandate of each of the factions is well-explained, but the meaning of these words speak volumes about what the factions believe.

In this world, all 16-year-olds choose their factions, their choices aided by an aptitude test, which suggests which faction they are best suited to. Beatrix is a member of Abnegation, but as her selection day approaches, she is uncertain where she belongs. Tensions are brewing between the factions, and Beatrix knows that no matter what choice she makes, the cost will be high.

The aspect of dystopian fiction that I enjoy most is the ability of these books to make you think, and days after I finished it, I'm still thinking about it. Which faction would my aptitude test suggest, and more importantly, which one would I choose? Once you choose, there is no going back, and if you choose wrong, you could end up factionless and live a life of poverty and misery. I like to think that I would be certain of my choice, and that I would know where I belong, but that's part of what makes this story interesting. How many of us are ever 100% certain of our choices? Teens are asked to make an overwhelming number of choices. But what if the choice is wrong? What if your choice doesn't choose you? What if you regret your choice later on? This is what Beatrix struggles with throughout the novel, and what makes her sympathetic and relatable.

This is an extremely well-plotted, well-written story with all of the components that make these books so attractive- romance, action, conflict, angst, and impossible choices. If you've read Lauren Oliver's Delerium or AllyCondie's Matched,  (or even if you haven't) you'll find lots to like about this book.

Highly recommended for 14 and up.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: She Said/She Saw by Norah McClintock

17-year-olds Kelly and Tegen are sisters, born 10 months apart, but as different as night and day. Kelly looks at life like a movie, while Tegen sees hers as an epic romance novel. Kelly is the more serious girl, while Tegen likes to party with her friends. What they do have in common is a general dislike for one another.

One night, while in the backseat of her best bud (but potential boyfriend) Martin's car, Martin and their friend Clark are shot dead in front of her. What did Tegen see that night? Is it possible that she's telling the truth and she honestly didn't see what happened, or is there more to the story that she's not telling. What Tegen said vs what she saw makes up the title of this book, and it's the basis for the mystery.

Norah McClintock is the reigning mystery queen with Canadian kids, and she tells a good story. Kelly and Tegen alternate points of view, with Kelly's view being presented in flim script form, and Tegen's in first person point of view. Kelly's observations are recorded by speaking directly to the camera which fill the reader in on details which Tegen witholds. As Kelly points out, there is always an added element to any story, and that's what's in the head of the teller.  Tegen is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator. There are things she doesn't know, and things she chooses not to tell. This makes Kelly's sections all the more important, because what she knows is instrumental in solving the mystery of what happened that night.

I also liked the depiction of Tegen's gradual isolation and shunning by her peers. Everybody seemed to believe that she was deliberately not telling what she saw, and it's an accurate depiction of how quickly high school kids can turn on one another. I felt her lonlieness and confusion, and while I wasn't 100% sure that she was telling the truth initially, I was swayed into believing her and feeling sorry for her.

The part I didn't like was the way the mystery was resolved at the end. In hindsight, there was a clue early in the novel that hinted at who might be responsible for the crime, but the detective work was shoddy, and I didn't quite buy they way everything wrapped up. I like a good twist in a mystery, but I didn't feel like this really worked. Everything happened very quickly, and it was too polar opposite from where the story seemed to be going.

Overall, it was a suspenseful and fast-paced read, and I was anxious to finish it. There is some marijuana use and swearing, so it's probably better suited for a high school reader than middle-school.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reading Quotas

There is an interesting editorial in the May/June issue of Horn Book (http://www.hbook.com/magazine/editorials/may11.asp) discussing the dangers of setting reading quotas with children. Whether it be a contest, or for school, Roger Sutton points out that setting a quota for anything often backfires, because suddenly, the point of the exercise is lost, and the mission becomes reaching that goal by any means possible. In the case of reading quotas (such as the 50 book a year requirement recently set by UK Secretary of Education Michael Gove) kids might zip through 50 books a week, but the question becomes what are they actually reading? Does a book designed for infants actually count?

Sutton's comments took me back to my 3rd grade read-a-thon, which I remember being pivitol in turning me into not just a good reader, but a veracious one. What I remember most clearly is wanting to win by reading the most books. (I don't remember if I did or not) The purpose of a read-a-thon is obviously to encourage reading, but now I wonder how much the exercise accomplished in the long run. Kids who already enjoyed reading kept on reading, but what about those who weren't already readers? Once the contest was over, did the non-readers become readers? I honestly don't think so.

Sutton also points out that one of the greatest faults of educators/parents/librarians is that many pay lip service to the importance and the pleasure of reading, but don't provide reading examples. He states that while it's nice to say that reading is fun, we have to do more than just say it. We have to let kids see us doing it. Some of the most effective silent reading programs in schools are ones where the teacher/librarian uses that time to actually read instead of doing other work. Studies also show that boys who see their fathers reading are more likely to be readers than those who don't.

While I agree that these are all valid points, I think there is another important element to getting kids reading, and that's choice. Take the Ontario Forest of Reading program for example. In order to be eligible to vote for a winner, children must read a minimum of 5/10 books on the list. Which 5 is up to them, and the level of enthusiasm they have for the winners is contagious. Why? Because in a program like this their preferences matter, and that's far more valuable than turning reading into a quota that has to be reached.

So here is my question to all of you: Do you think that setting quotas is an effective means of encouraging a love of reading, or should we be placing value on more than just a number?